But like so many other things in Michael’s strange life, it finally ended.

He blinked his eyes as they focused. The pain faded so there was just an echo of it floating through his bones and joints and head. He hadn’t known what to expect. He’d wondered about it, thought about it every night for a month. Would he wake up in a pod at the Hive? Outside the Hive, floating in that darkness like he’d done several times before? At a Portal? In some kind of factory? He had no clue.

Worst of all, he hadn’t known with any certainty that he’d wake up at all. So in that sense, everything was hunky-dory. But to his surprise, he came to inside a Coffin not much different from the one in which he’d just left behind the body of Jackson Porter. A guy he’d been close to in ways most people would never experience.

There was a hiss; then the lid of the Coffin swung open and NerveWires receded from his body. Everything seemed so real. Spectacularly real. And even as his old bedroom materialized in the space opening above him, he understood. Sure enough, there was Helga, smiling down at him, just as Gabby was probably doing that very second to Jackson back in the Wake.

“Welcome home,” Helga said.

3

He sat with Helga in the kitchen, having just stuffed his belly with her famous waffles and eggs and bacon. Michael enjoyed every bite, but he could never think about food the same way again. For the second time in his weird existence, he wasn’t a human. Everything about him was programmed. He had no real stomach or organs to digest food.

He was code. Complicated code, but code all the same.

Honestly, he didn’t really mind so much. Life had been great before Kaine, Weber, and that stupid Path ruined his sweet bliss. He’d get back to that. Memories of the real world would dull and fade, and Lifeblood Deep would again become his true home.

“I’m not sure which version of you I like better,” he said after one last gulp of OJ. “The one who makes this sweet breakfast or the one who goes around killing bad guys.”

Helga rolled her eyes. “I’m one and the same, Mikey boy. One and the same. And don’t think life’s going to be a peachy road. Don’t do your homework, don’t behave…well, you may see Helga the Warrior come back.”

Michael pictured her in an old barbarian’s getup with that fiery sword and snickered until his chest hurt. Yeah, he felt good, all right. Life was going to be just fine.

“Thanks for doing all this,” he finally said. Taking a cue from Bryson’s brave display in the real world, he decided to share his deepest, most sincere feelings with this miraculous woman. “I know you worked hard to program this place—to make it look like our old home. It’s amazing.” He paused, choking back a sudden wave of emotion. “Thanks for coming after me and saving me. And for figuring out a way we could keep on living in the Deep.”

Helga walked around the counter and gave him a hug, her eyes moist, then went back to her own seat.

“I have something to tell you,” she said in a quiet voice.

His curiosity was piqued. “You do?”

She nodded, and he felt a sudden dread blossom in his chest.

“No, no,” she quickly countered, “it’s not bad. I promise. I wanted to wait until…until I was certain everything worked out and we could both continue existing in the VirtNet. And…here we are.”

After a long, awkward pause, his pulse pounding in anticipation, he said, “Okay. What is it?”

“Do you remember…” She faltered. “Never mind, of course you remember. The day Sarah died.”

Michael could only nod, a roar of blood in his ears.

“That day, I sent you out of the room so I could work with our programmers back in the Sleep to download her information. Her consciousness. I needed to do it before she took her last breath in that world.”

He couldn’t swallow; he couldn’t breathe.

“I think,” she continued, “I know, that we got it all. We had plenty of experience working with the Mortality Doctrine by that point. The only thing is, we weren’t able to capture her on the other side. At the Hive. We weren’t able to insert her into a pod.”

Michael stood up, then sat back down again. “What…what does that mean?”

“It means that she’s out there.” Helga looked up and around at the ceiling, as if looking for a ghost. “Scattered. Maybe across billions of data points. I don’t know. She might be like a bucket of sand tossed in the ocean. But…but at least you know she’s out there. Somewhere. That’s a little something to hope on, right?”

Michael had his hands on the counter in front of him. He stared at the backs of his knuckles, shell-shocked. There were so many emotions swirling inside him, he couldn’t focus on one.

“What about…my parents?” he managed to ask.

Helga gave him the sincerest of understanding smiles. “I miss them, too. So much. I think they’re different, I’m sorry to say. It’s like…it’s like this. Imagine a chalkboard—you know, from the old stories? A chalkboard with names written across its surface. With your parents, I think it’s like they’ve been erased, never to come back. But with Sarah…well, with her, I think it’s like her name is still written there. The chalkboard itself has just been lost in a warehouse as big as a universe. The odds of finding it are small, but she’s out there, somewhere.”

Michael nodded sadly.

“Maybe not the greatest analogy,” she said. “But I do think there’s at least something to hold on to with Sarah.” She fell silent, letting everything sink in.

“Thanks for telling me all this,” Michael finally whispered, then got up. He needed to be alone. He turned and walked away, but stopped at the door to the hallway and turned back toward his nanny. “I love you, Helga.”

Then he went to his room, the one he grew up in.

4

“Just like old times,” Bryson said, raising his drink. The other three people around the table clinked their glasses with his and took a big swig. They were at Dan the Man Deli, and it was indeed just like the good old days. A big plate of bleu chips had already been half devoured.

“This place is even starting to look like it used to,” Michael said as he grabbed another chip. “Looks like the new VirtNet Commission is doing a pretty good job. I just can’t believe they haven’t asked me to work for them yet.”

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